James, whose rotund Shrek resembles a chartreuse Ed Asner with tiny trumpet-like ears, has got one of those robust musical-theater voices that fills the theater. Even encased in what looks like a rubberized fat suit, his forceful personality comes through and drives the story.
If the show, which opened Sunday at the Broadway Theatre, sometimes settles for efficiency over inspiration, so be it. That's one of the pitfalls of closely identifying your product - and these days musicals aspire, above all, to brand-name profitability - with its original source material. You have to satisfy the fans of the film as well as theatergoers who may never have heard of the movie or the William Steig book on which it is based.
And no expense seems to have been spared in creating a unique, fairy-tale world in which Shrek sets out to rescue the Princess Fiona (a delightful Sutton Foster) so she can marry the evil Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber in a scene-stealing performance).
Shrek is accompanied on his meandering adventures by a wisecracking Donkey, portrayed with eyelash-batting impishness by Daniel Breaker. Their journey is told in a stop-and-go manner. David Lindsay-Abaire's book becomes a series of scenes that don't quite build into a satisfying whole despite director Jason Moore's yeoman efforts to keep things moving as fast as possible.
Yet taken one by one, these scenes offer some genuine theatricality and moments of inspired hilarity.
The appeal of "Shrek" always has been in its subversive treatment of fairy tales and their most famous characters. A lot of them are present here - from Pinocchio to the Three Bears to Humpty Dumpty to Peter Pan and more. They want to escape their banishment to Shrek's swamp and, at the same time, earn a little respect for their individuality.
Villains often get the best lines in these stories, and the major meanie in "Shrek" is no exception.
Sieber's preening, height-challenged Lord Farquaad is played here as a distant relative of director Roger De Bris in "The Producers," and the actor makes the most of the nobleman's campy malevolence. Sieber is a sight, spending the show on his knees, his little faux-legs dangling in front of him. And the guy can really sing, too.
Foster's entrancing, high-spirited Fiona is a tomboy at heart, a young woman who has no problem leading a chorus of rats in a giddy tap number, one of the few times "Shrek" resorts to more traditional musical-comedy choreography.
The show's massive sets and colorful costumes (both courtesy of Tim Hatley) are so visually eye-catching that they often distract from what's going with the story and score. Composer Jeanine Tesori has written attractive, eclectic, pop-flavored melodies that range from a jaunty "Travel Song" to a gutsy duet called "I Got You Beat" for Shrek and Fiona that revels in rude noises. We wonder what that song will sound like on the original cast recording.
Lindsay-Abaire's lyrics are often fun and quite witty, which shouldn't be a surprise since he is the author of such zany, off-the-wall plays as "Fuddy Meers" and "Kimberly Akimbo."
Yet despite its celebration of snark (the production slyly tweaks other Broadway musicals), "Shrek" wants to honor heart as well. The show's ultimate message - it's what's inside that counts, not the outer wrapper - while not exactly new, is a fine one. And "Shrek" ends with a little sermonette of its own, sung by those outcast, eccentric fairy-tale creatures.
"Let your freak flag fly" goes one of the musical's more persistent lyrics. Maybe "Bein' Green" isn't so bad after all.